Wednesday September 16th, 2015

On Tuesday, for the second night in a row, the Texas Rangers and Houston Astros played a tense, see-saw game in Arlington, and for the second night in a row, the Rangers emerged victorious thanks to a tiebreaking rally in the game’s final innings. As a result of their 6–5 victory, the Rangers have taken a half-game lead over the Astros in the American League West and are alone in first place for the first time since April 23 of last year; they are also in first place after April for the first time since Sept. 5, 2013.

With Dallas Keuchel scheduled to start for Houston on Wednesday, Tuesday’s game was one Texas had to have. It got out to an early 4–0 lead thanks to a bottom of the first in which seemingly nothing was going right for the Astros. However, Houston came right back with three in the top of the second and took the lead in the top of the fourth only to let the Rangers tie it up in the bottom of that inning.

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The score remained tied at 5–5 until the bottom of the ninth when Astros manager A.J. Hinch, presented with that old managerial bugaboo—the tie game on the road—opted to play matchups rather than go to his closer. Lefty Oliver Perez, who needed 10 pitches to retire fellow southpaw Shin-Soo Choo for the final out of the eighth inning with men on first and second, gave up a leadoff single to lefty Prince Fielder to start the ninth. With Drew Stubbs running for Fielder and righty Adrian Beltre due up, Hinch then turned not to his righty closer Luke Gregerson, who hadn’t pitched since Sunday, but to righty Will Harris, the pitcher who gave up the game-winning two-run home run to Fielder in the bottom of the eighth Monday night. Beltre, who was 2 for 4 against Harris coming into the game, singled on Harris’s first pitch to push Stubbs to third. Two pitches later, lefty Mitch Moreland lifted a sacrifice fly to right center to bring Stubbs home with the winning run.

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That sequence wasted a valiant effort on the part of the Astros to dig out of that early hole. After wasting a leadoff single by George Springer and a two-out double by Carlos Correa in the top of the first, the Astros had a nightmarish bottom of the first. Delino DeShields singled on Collin McHugh’s first pitch, then stole second as McHugh went to 3–0 on Choo. Only a fantastic deke by Correa kept DeShields from going to third base on catcher Hank Conger’s wild throw into centerfield when DeShields stole second, but after Choo walked, Fielder singled home DeShields, and Fielder and Choo moved up to second and third when leftfielder Colby Rasmus’s throw home hit halfway up on the screen behind home plate.

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​Beltre then hit a pop up behind second base on which Jose Altuve nearly made a fantastic, sliding over-the-shoulder catch, but the ball caromed off the tips of the fingers of Altuve’s glove, giving Beltre an RBI single instead. McHugh then hit Moreland with a pitch to load the bases, and when he broke Rougned Odor’s bat on a subsequent grounder it slowed down the ball enough that Correa was unable to turn the double play, which allowed another run to score. Elvis Andrus then hit a bloop that was all of a foot fair down the rightfield line for another RBI single and stole second before McHugh rallied to strikeout rookie Joey Gallo for the second out.

Then the Astros’ luck suddenly changed. Chris Gimenez creamed McHugh’s 1–0 pitch, but directly at Correa for the final out of the first. The Astros then answered back against Derek Holland with Rasmus drawing a leadoff walk and Chris Carter doubling him home, and Jonathan Villar and Conger following with singles that led to another run, all before Holland could record the first out of the second inning. That out came on a Jake Marisnick safety squeeze that scored a third run, and while the Astros’ scoring ended there, they were right back in a game they had appeared to kick away just a half-inning earlier.

The Astros then took the lead against Holland in the top of the fourth following a leadoff double by Conger and a single by Marisnick that put runners on the corners with no outs. Springer and Altuve were unable to do anything more than move Marisnick to second base, but when Holland fell behind Correa 3–0 with two outs, he and Gimenez opted to make ball four intentional to bring Evan Gattis to the plate with a force at every base. Holland got ahead of Gattis 0–1 and 1–2, but Gattis fisted Holland’s 1–2 pitch over Andrus’s head at short to bring in two runs and give the Astros a brief 5–4 lead. Unfortunately for Houston, McHugh, who hadn’t give up a run since that ugly first inning, couldn’t hold that slim lead, giving up a two-out single to Fielder and an RBI double to Beltre, who were 3 for 4 and 4 for 5, respectively, on the night. Beltre’s double, a hot shot down the third base line past the diving Villar, scored Fielder all the way from first base thanks in part to another poor throw from Rasmus in leftfield. He appeared to throw a slider that skipped several feet in front of cutoff man Correa, who struggled to corral the ball and was unable to make a relay throw home.

Beltre’s double drove McHugh from the game, and it wasn’t until the top of the fifth that Holland was able to record a 1-2-3 inning, the first by either side. An inning later, after retiring six straight including his first and only strikeout of the night (Marisnick swinging leading off the sixth), Holland was bounced by a two-out triple by Altuve, aided by a misplay by Choo on the carom off the wall. However, Ross Ohlendorf got Correa to ground out to keep the game tied.

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Texas got a man to second base in the seventh and eighth, but Chad Qualls got Andrus to hit into a double play in the former frame and Pat Neshek and Perez combined to strand Will Venable at the keystone in the latter. That pushed the action to the bottom of the ninth, a walk-off situation for the heart of the Rangers’ order in which Hinch opted not to use his best available reliever.

“I clearly could have used him and didn’t,” Hinch said of Gregerson after the game. As a result, Hinch is now the manager of a second-place team.

This divisional race is a long way from over, however. Potential Cy Young award winner Keuchel, who has held the Rangers to three runs over 22 innings in three prior starts against them this year, takes the hill for Houston on Wednesday night against Martin Perez, and hot-shot rookie Lance McCullers will start for the Astros in Thursday’s series finale against Colby Lewis, a pitcher 14 years his senior. These two teams will then meet again for a three-game set in Houston on the season’s penultimate weekend. With just a half-game separating the two clubs, neither will be able to build a large enough lead in the next two nights to render those three games irrelevant by this series’s end, and given how closely fought the first two games of this series have been, it’s likely that not even those final three head-to-head games will decide this division. Nonetheless, the final two games of this series, like the first two, will be essential viewing and crucial for each team.

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